How to intervene as a bystander concerned about domestic violence

My last post gave some history and background about why I decided I needed to write about how to intervene when you’re afraid someone is experiencing domestic violence.  Here I’m just going to talk about what to do.  This post is gendered and does talk about women that experience domestic violence because that is my experience. Other people are better placed to write about bystander involvement for other genders experiencing domestic violence – but if you think the advice here would be useful for people of other genders just swap up the pronouns.

Express concern

It is hard to express concern about someone’s relationship and even their well-being. A lot of the time people think that they aren’t the right person to do it. It should be someone closer or someone more objective; a family member or not a family member. There is no perfect person. There is no ideal amount of closeness or distance. Only people that notice warning signs, people close enough to see what might be happening. If that is you, you might not be the ‘perfect’ person, but you might be the only person that can say something.

If you decide that you are the right person, you might think it isn’t the right time. Maybe the relationship isn’t serious enough, or it is too close to a major event like a wedding or anniversary, perhaps she is pregnant, or he has just been diagnosed with an illness. There will never be a perfect time. What you need to look for is a ‘good enough’ time. That is, a time when you have the privacy and the space to have the conversation. That is all.

Expressing concern doesn’t have to be a hugely serious or monumental event. It can be a quiet chat in a coffee shop where you say “I’ve been worried about you, we haven’t seen you around all that much lately, is everything OK?”, or “I’m concerned that you’re getting awfully cut off from your friends/activities lately, how are you doing?”. If there are other signs that you’ve noticed, then you can raise them too. It is usually best to avoid starting the conversation with a criticism of their partner since this might make her defensive or mean that they don’t feel able to talk to you in future.

Accept denial

If your friend denies that there is a problem, or doesn’t want to talk about it, then don’t push her to. Instead, accept her denial and let her know that you are open to talking about it in future if they would like to. Continue to create opportunities to meet up, even for short periods. Non-judgemental contact can help people to feel less isolated and like there is a space to talk if they need it.

Listen more than you speak, offer support rather than advice

Abuse is most often about having power and control taken from you. Offering someone the space to work through their current situation and to figure out what they want to do is a huge gift. It is also sometimes impossibly hard. There have been times that I have wanted to shake friends when they have decided to give it another go with someone that was clearly hurting them.  The thing is, you can’t make anyone else’s choices for them, and life is risky.  There is dignity in having the right to make our own decisions with autonomy and self-determination. Offering support, options and validation are wonderful, but pressuring someone to do something that they simply aren’t ready, or able, to do is only going to increase vulnerability and isolation.

If she wants to leave, help her to plan

Leaving an abusive partner is dangerous. Lots of women are killed by ex-partners who were abusive during their relationship.  Planning finances, a safe place to go and how to stay safe are vital.  Help her to access domestic violence support services locally, and professionals that can support her.  Stay in regular contact, bearing in mind that her partner might be monitoring her communication.

Find support for yourself

It is hard to know that someone is in danger and that you can’t directly intervene. Being a sounding board, a supportive listener and friend is a powerful way of standing up to abuse.  It counteracts isolation and helps the person in the situation to feel that they have some choices and someone that they can talk to. But you need to make sure that you’re supported too. Offering support to people in abusive relationships is emotionally challenging, and you will need help doing it.  Find people you can talk to, rant to, cry with and who will generally support you. Give yourself space to feel the emotions that come up for you.  Make sure you make time for self-care, and if you need to, speak to a therapist yourself to make sure that you’re managing the emotional strain.


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